Zep walked home that night instead of taking the bus. It was dark already, and the faint, orange lights of the streets soothed him. He was concentrating on not thinking about the new patient. There was something intriguing about his politeness, about the cool-blooded elegance in every word, every gesture he made. A sort of...

His apartment was empty. No human presence, no pet, no plants. Almost no furniture – a bed, a desk, a computer, a plethora of books. Human psychology. Sociology. Anatomy. Some theology, too.

Zep stood for Zephaniah – an ultimate heritage from his baptist family. Mass every single day, and the weight of guilt on every move, every thought. Curiosity was a sin. No room of one's own for any of the children – seven brothers and sisters. Zep was the fourth. Some of them were dead now. Some were married, or had been. One was a single mother somewhere in California – hated and cursed by the old parents. One had been committed at age fourteen after a dark, secret event no-one ever mentioned. Zep hadn't seen him in many years.

He loved the emptiness of his narrow apartment. He loved every inch of free space, every second of blissful silence. He wasn't a misanthrope. He had sympathy, and even compassion, for most people. He just didn't like talking to them too much. He enjoyed his part at the hospital – the silent comforter, the listener. He caught himself hoping people found him mysterious, an intriguing loner. But sometimes he heard them whispering. So kind, so kind... But so strange.

After all, he didn't really care what they said.

(He got to watch them die in the end.)

It was only that he liked to observe. Watch people's reaction when they learned they were about to die. Watch Dr Gordon's grotesque hypocrisy. Watch the look in the patients' eyes as they felt themselves slip from one side of death to the other. He usually felt a tingle of shame at the scientific, dispassionate way in which he noted the details in people's words, attitudes, gestures and expressions – like a naturalist of some sorts.

But shame was a distant factor, a childhood memory. He'd had years and years of practice in pushing it away, far away, to the back of his mind. In fact, he often found himself consciously neglecting the mandatory display of christian charity and compassion – and enjoying it. He liked being more powerful than them. All those poor, condemned souls. He liked being the one who held them. The one who guided them. The one who knew.

He liked showing his power to them in subtle ways. Looks. Deeds. Allusions. And of course, he always opened wide, vague, innocent eyes so that they would assume he hadn't done anything on purpose. Sometimes he would even let them believe he was "simple-minded".

But they depended on him. They were dying, they were condemned, and he had the key to their last remnants of dignity, to the stopping of their pain, to the psychological support that they needed so much, and that no doctor would ever provide them with.

He held them all in the hollow of his hand.